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Lived Ancient Religion

Conference “Sharpening the knife” (June 2013)

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Sharpening the knife: Making religion effective in everyday life

Opening conference for the ERC research project Lived Ancient Religion: Questioning “cults” and “polis religion” 11th June (evening) to 14th June (noon), 2013 Erfurt, Max Weber Centre of the University of Erfurt/Augustinerkloster

The project This project takes a completely new perspective on the religious history of Mediterranean antiquity, starting from the individual and “lived” religion instead of cities or peoples. “Lived religion” suggests a set of experiences, practices addressed to, and conceptions of the divine, which are appropriated, expressed, and shared by individuals in diverse social spaces. Within this spatial continuum from the primary space of the family to the shared space of public institutions and translocal literary communication four research fields are defined. In each of them a sub-project addresses representative complexes of evidence in different parts of the Mediterranean in the Imperial period. They are bound together by the analysis of the interaction of individuals with the agents of traditions and providers of religious services in the various fields. The methodological innovation is defined through the notions of religious experience, embodiment, and “culture in interaction”. Ancient Mediterranean religion is traditionally viewed through the lens of public religion, i.e. consisting of the religions of political units (usually city-states) that are part and parcel of civic identity. Such analyses of ancient polytheistic religions, whether they refer to “embedded” religion (J. North) or “polis religion” (C. Sourvinou-Inwood), work on the assumption that all members of ancient societies were in principle equally religious. From this point of view, religion (and this also applies to Judaism) is a taken-for-granted part of every biography: rites de passage structure the life of each individual, while ritual acts within the domestic cult, family cult or burial and death rites facilitate change of status. This basic assumption of a homo religiosus is bound up with the political interpretation of ancient religion: since religion is an unquestioned given, religion is thought to be particularly well-suited to cultivate “collective identities” and to act as instrument for the justification of power. Modern totalising claims on its behalf notwithstanding, polis religion is also understood as supplemented by or – in the end – even in competition with “cults”. Being elective in nature, these cults offered options for more intensive social interaction and in particular soteriological perspectives, starting with Orphism in classical Greece. Accepting the framework of civic religion, much of twentieth century scholarship on ancient religion has been directed towards locating, identifying, and classifying the evidence into “cults” or – if the documents seemed hostile to plurality or explicitly favoured monolatry – “religions” (ÉPRO). The topic of the diffusion of such “cults” dominates research on the religion of the provinces of the Roman Empire as well as the influx of cults to the large urban centres. Cult-centred 1


2 corpora of evidence laid the groundwork for enterprises, supplemented by prosopographical or historical studies or studies addressing the iconographic or narrative construction of divine figures (H. Versnel). Topically, research has focused on key-factors determining membership in these supposedly small, soteriologically oriented groups (“sects”, to use the terminology of sociology of religion), which are regarded as forerunners and ultimately competitors of Christianity. The starting point for such an approach is the assumption that public cults failed to address the individual and its existence within social orders, which were in some cases gripped by change to the point of crisis. Public cults would not have offered any emotionally and intellectually satisfying perspective to the “axial” consciousness of individuality that had started to take shape. This analysis could apply both to Hellenistic cities and the metropolises of the Imperial era. Lived Ancient Religion

Conference “Sharpening the knife” (June 2013)

“Cults” and “polis religion” leave a major gap. Religious phenomena of the ancient Mediterranean societies have been analysed far beyond what has been described so far. Ten thousands of votives in sanctuaries have been collected, documented, and studied. They are pointing to a “votive religion” that copes well with individual crisis. “Magic”, ranging from amulets and curse tablets to elaborate rituals and discursive methods manipulated by ancient specialists, has been analysed as a cultural resource that might even be opposed to religion. Divination makes up another field of “instrumental religion”, provided not only by and for state officials (and hence described as part of public religion), but also by a broad range of male and female practitioners. Technical studies have failed to take into account the venues of such practices in ancient religion as stressed by ancient philosophy (Stoicism, Cicero) and the Judaeo-Christian concept of revelation. Finally, funerary rites and the cult of the dead are a further area that abounds with evidence, yet occupies a marginal position (if any) in the polis religion paradigm. To sum up, vast areas of evidence and excellent research done on these phenomena have not managed to open up a new, broader framework within the study of ancient religion. As a consequence, with a few exceptions, the field has assumed a marginal position in global religious studies and comparative religion, i.e. for today’s understanding of contemporary and historical religion, and has not adequately contributed to our understanding of ancient Mediterranean cultures in general. To question the cults-and-polis religion-perspective, it is not sufficient to merely point to these fields. The challenge is to integrate all these fields into a new theoretical framework. It is the audacious aim of “Lived Ancient Religion” to provide such a framework and adequate methodological tools. LAR (“Lived Ancient Religion” – or lar, the god of the Roman household) is audacious in the sense that it intends to develop a new and integrative perspective on religion in the Ancient Mediterranean and an adequate methodology. This approach sets out to replace the concepts of “cults” and “polis religion(s)” as integrative frameworks in the description of a field that could usefully be conceptualised as “religion”. By refocusing on the individual and the situational, i.e., on the intrinsic determinants of “lived religion”, it aims to recover the importance of Altertumswissenschaft and the study of ancient Euro-Mediterranean religion within global History of Religion, thereby offering an approach, which can comprise the local and global trajectories of the multi-dimensional pluralistic religions of antiquity.

The conference: Looking at methodology, sharpening its knife As the title of the conference indicates, methodology is crucial for research in the history of ancient religions. The concept of “lived religion”, chosen as a starting point, has been developed for the description and analysis of contemporary religion (Meredith McGuire). It does not address how individuals replicate a set of religious practices and beliefs preconfigured by an institutionalised official religion within their biography – or, conversely, opt out of adhering to tradition. Of course, 2


3 considering the relationship of individuals to tradition, such an assumption could in principle work in a religiously pluralistic and a mono-confessional society. Instead, “lived ancient religion” focuses on the actual everyday experience, on practices, expressions, and interactions that could be related to “religion”. Such “religion” is understood as a spectrum of experiences, actions, and beliefs and communications hinging on human communication with super-human or even transcendent agent(s), for the ancient Mediterranean usually conceptualised as “gods”. Ritualisation and elaborate forms of representation are called upon for the success of communication with these addressees. Lived Ancient Religion

Conference “Sharpening the knife” (June 2013)

When concentrating on practices, one should accept and account for incoherence rather than coherence (even in research into contemporary religion), the stressed role of mediality and the importance given to knowledge and biographical coherence. Ancient religions are only partially receptive of techniques established in social studies so as to create new data by means of empirical or experimental procedures. It cannot be hoped that extensive descriptions of rituals stem from people whom we know to have practiced them, or that people whose reflection on religion is preserved in the literary tradition left other evidence of personal practices. The generalisation of the individual instance (hardly ever representative in a methodologically plausible way) is just as problematic as the reliability of elite descriptions of mass behaviour – this is, of course, the overall situation in the historical critique of sources. By drawing on the model of “lived religion”, scattered evidence could be contextualised and interpreted by relating it to individual agents, their use of space and time, their forming of social coalitions, their negotiation with religious specialists or “providers”, and their attempts to “make sense” of religion in a situational manner and thus render it effective. This is not a material statement about any logical priority of the individual, but a methodological option, which provides a radical alternative to “cults” and “polis religion” and a way to overcome the latter’s deficits. The “lived religion” approach, as proposed by the Erfurt project induces methodological modifications in the process of selecting and interpreting the evidence, as it focuses on: experience rather than symbols; embodiment rather than ritual; and culture in interaction rather than habitus, organisation or culture as text. In order to bring such an approach to bear on the available evidence, research will have to concentrate on individual appraisal and interaction in diverse social spaces: the primary space of the house and familial interaction (including familial funeral space), the secondary space of religious experience and interaction in voluntary or professional associations, the spaces shared by many individuals or groups in the public sites of sanctuaries or festival routes, and finally the virtual space of literary communication and the intellectual discourses formed therein. To analyse the whole continuum of social interaction ranging from domestic cult to public spaces and professionals is of particular importance. The use and construction of these social spaces by individual agents have to be indexed topographically, for instance, by domestic or coemeterial, urban, and extra-urban, open or architecturally defined sites. This form of indexing enables the contextualisation of religion in everyday life. A further dimension has to be considered: When were these spaces used in terms of calendar dates or frequency? Clearly, the permanent use of an amulet differs from a one-time ritual (that might, however, be remembered time and again). Religious traditions form part of such an environment; therefore they should not be studied as if they are an independent variable, but rather as a product of providers of religious knowledge and services, “priests” or professionals. Most of the evidence at our disposal is best to be interpreted neither as “authentic” individual expression nor as institutional “survival”, but as media, as the results of a culture created in interaction. The scope of this conference is to bring together scholars working in different fields and types of sources to propose and discuss methodological approaches that have proven or might prove helpful for elucidating the dimensions of “lived ancient religions”. Short contributions of about 20 minutes – leaving enough time of discussion for each contribution as for cross-reference -, starting from 3


4 different types of evidence (but concentrating on methodology within the oral presentation) should create a panorama of innovative approaches and inspire further elaboration and new ideas. For the time being we suggest grouping contributions and discussions into five groups, each bringing together expertise of various disciplines: Lived Ancient Religion

Conference “Sharpening the knife” (June 2013)

I The role of objects The papers in this session shall ask how objects were used to create different meanings in different situations. The main focus is on approaches that stimulate new insights into the pragmatics of objects (with or without textual, pictorial or epigraphical representations). The papers should discuss new fertile methods and illustrate them with a case study of their respective fields of expertise. The latter shall not evolve into a standard theory, but pinpoint the variety of experiences and memories stimulated. II Group styles Instead of asking about norms, rules, organization or specific dogmatics, ‘lived ancient religion’ invites to inquire into types of interaction – gestures, modes of speaking, semantics, communication - that are developed within groups. Such a group style can but need not be used in the presence of outsiders to establish or avoid boundaries. It might be seen by others as simply ‘odd’ or characteristic. The papers of this session should attempt to develop methods to capture such characteristics of religious grouping. III Meaning in situations Meaning is situational and not constant. It can change and changes can create new meanings. Meanings can even differ in the same context for various agents. In this session we want to explore ‘meaning’ in situational constructs and examine the effectiveness of religious instruments as employed in order to create, change and enhance meanings. Methodologies developed in this session could give us a lens through which aspects of lived ancient religion can be examined through a variety of sources ranging from textual to archaeological material. IV Appropriation The aspect of appropriation focused on in this session draws particular attention on the individuals behind the actions that led to the construction of rituals and buildings as well as the production of meanings in difference to established traditions. The papers should explore methods in identifying variations in the appropriations by different individual or collective agents. V Learning and memory Individual religious practice depends upon the intellectual as well as embodied availability and the situational salience of ‘traditions’, that is, complex belief systems or simple sequences of ritual action. This dimension of ‘lived ancient religion’ is addressed and focused upon by the terms ‘learning’ and ‘memory’. These terms refer to processes of acquiring knowledge by formal training or constant repetition and to instances of recalling emotions, complex patterns, cognitive or bodily knowledge. Again, papers should reflect about approaches to identify such processes in our sources. Accommodation in the historical spot of the Augustinerkloster and nearby hotel will be provided. All travel costs will be refunded according to “Bundesreisekostengesetz” thanks to a grant of the European Research Council. – Erfurt is connected by direct trains to Frankfurt International Airport (c. 2:30h, every hour from 6am to 8 pm).

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Lived Ancient Religion

Conference “Sharpening the knife” (June 2013)

Marlis Arnhold, Valentino Gasparini, Rubina Raja, Jörg Rüpke

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2013-06-11-lar-conference  
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